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The Independent Culture

CITRON has had its biggest-ever success in Britain with the Xantia, a classy but conservative mid-range model designed to replace the old BX series and - more significantly - take on the unstoppable Ford Mondeo. Since the latter means improving the business with both family buyers and commercial fleets, the criticisms of the early petrol models - that a great car was let down by an underwhelming engine - had to be met. The problem was exacerbated by the development of a superb turbo-diesel version, which made the shortcomings in the petrol Xantias all the more apparent.

This summer's "multivalve" model (they don't call it a 16V, thus maintaining the Xantia's cool demeanour) is the solution. It retains all the Xantia's considerable virtues - particularly the impression of comfort, even luxury, that the Mondeo doesn't have - and displays the enviable Citroen knack of appearing innovative even when conceived as a safe bet.

The new model doesn't come at a knock-down price. At over pounds 17,000 it's knocking on the door of BMW's 3-series cars, and it's up in the same bracket as the most expensive Mondeos, which come with some features the Xantia doesn't have, such as air conditioning. But it scores highly for its superb ride, the result of a hydractive suspension system that is the best combination of bump-soothing smoothness and taut body-control Citroen has ever devised.

Though it has a touch of limo elegance about it, the Xantia is also practical and a pleasure to travel in - particularly on motorways. The cabin is spacious, rear legroom and headroom are excellent, and the boot is immense. Citroen has once again created a fascia and instrumentation that add a touch of futuristic glamour to the utilitarian function of driving.

The company is now installing the new multivalve units across the Xantia range, keeping the eight-valve versions only for entry models and automatics. What does the change mean in engine terms? It's a question of breathing efficiency: an athlete tries to improve the rate at which inhaled oxygen can be converted into a form that reaches the muscles, the power of the internal combustion engine is dependent on something similar - getting the maximum petrol/air mixture into the spaces above the pistons, and pushing the maximum amount of burnt exhaust gas out.

In the case of the Xantia multivalve, the improvement is noticeable in the car's brisker acceleration, but a more useful indicator is the available "urge" when you want a fast change-down to maximise the overtaking safety margin. The fuel consumption isn't bad either. At around 23 miles per gallon in town, 36mpg at motorway speeds, it's no worse than the eight- valve, two-litre model. In short, the multivalve represents a nice finishing touch on an already excellent machine.

GOING PLACES: Much improved engine performance with multivalve technology, pushing brake horsepower up from 123 to 135; 0-60mph in 9.5 secs. Crisp gearshift; good pulling power for overtaking acceleration.

STAYING ALIVE: Hydractive suspension occasionally too noticeable, but generally a superb complement to traditional Citroen springing, giving flat cornering, and plenty of road feel. Brakes excellent, if over-sensitive (anti-lock standard on 2.0 models). Good build quality, excellent visibility.

CREATURE COMFORTS: The Xantia trump card - very comfortable and supportive seating, spacious cabin with plenty of rear legroom.

BANGS PER BUCK: Driver's airbag; engine immobiliser; self-levelling suspension, remote deadlocks, electric sunroof, electric front and rear windows, electric mirrors, alloy wheels. Fuel economy not bad at approx 24 miles per gallon in town, 36mpg on motorways. Price pounds 17,270.

STAR QUALITY: Xantia elegance, comfort and space; superb ride over bad surfaces; improved engine.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: A bit thirsty; soft suspension not everyone's taste.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Ford Mondeo 2.0 Ghia (pounds 17,915) - great handler, more mundane to look at, comparable pace, air-conditioning included. Vauxhall Cavalier 2.0 16V (pounds 15,950) - not much fun to drive, but a little quicker and more economical. BMW 318i (pounds 18,165) - always the one to beat when prices hit this range: agile, charismatic but cramped at the back.